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"The Five-Foot Shelf" -- epilogue

Posted by David Mehegan  November 13, 2006 10:13 AM

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What shall I do about my grandfather’s “Harvard Classics: The Five-Foot Shelf of Books”? Many times in the last few weeks, as I have written this series, I’ve climbed to the attic to ponder, handle, and consult the old red books, stored in cardboard cartons. They’re safe for now, but I don’t want to abandon them up there. The truth is, they’re in tough shape. At least two of the 50 volumes have lost their covers altogether, and the stitching of several others has broken and signatures are falling out. What to do?

One solution: replace the damaged volumes. So many hundreds of thousands of sets of “The Five-Foot Shelf” were sold, over several editions up through the 1930s, that individual books are easy to come by. Just now I checked on and found Volume 27, “English Essays from Sir Philip Sidney to Macaulay,” 1910 edition, in good condition, for $3.95. I’m sure all the other volumes are available. But what would I do with Granddad’s originals? Throw them in the trash? I can’t do that.

Or, I could buy the replacements, then take the new and old copies to my friend Sam Ellenport, proprietor of Boston’s wonderful Harcourt Bindery, and have him transfer the intact covers to the old books. He could also repair the other damaged volumes.

But then, where will I put the whole set? I don’t have an open five-foot bookcase to put them on in my house, unless I get rid of a lot of my own books.

Unless … unless I’m misunderstanding the truth about John Humphreys, my grandfather, what was most important to him. What does it mean that he didn’t want to own a house because he thought it would force him to cut back on his reading? What would Granddad say about my dilemma, if I could ask him? What I imagine him saying is this: “Don’t make an idol of the ‘Five-Foot Shelf.’ Get rid of them if you must. I’m grateful for all they gave to me. But the treasure was not the books. The real treasure was the reading. Reading is what I loved most.”

If that is what he would say, then what I should do, whatever happens to the books in the end, is read them. Can I do that? Why not? There are 23,000 pages in “The Five-Foot Shelf,” but Charles William Eliot, the editor, insisted that one need only read 15 minutes a day. The main thing is to make a start.

Volume 1, “Franklin, Woolman, Penn”
“The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin”:

“Twyford, at the Bishop of St. Asaph’s, 1771
“Dear Son: I have ever had the pleasure in obtaining any little anecdotes of my ancestors. You may remember the inquiries I made about the remains of my relations when you were with me in England…. Imagining it may be equally agreeable to you to know the circumstances of my life…I sit down to write them for you….”

five foot shelf.jpg

(End of series. Previous installments appeared Sept. 19, 26, Oct. 4, 16, 23, 30, and Nov. 7.

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About off the shelf News about books, authors, and publishers from The Boston Globe.
Nicole Lamy is editor of the Globe's Books section.
Jan Gardner writes the "Shelf Life" column for the Globe's Books section.

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